On a sunny warm April day my life as an adult began. At my plastic electric Westclock alarm went off. My clock had no bells, no soft chirping noises and no snooze button. Nope what I got was a grinding grating erererererer sound. ERERERERERE blasted out like two mismatched gears destroying each other. God that clock was nastily insistent; I had no choice but to get out of bed. Pushing the little brass stem on the back of the clock was the only way to end the aural pain.
Still half asleep, but with jangly nerves, I sat on the edge of my bed. The rude sound was still ringing in my head as I came to groggy consciousness of my adulthood. On April 20, 1974 by the laws of the State of New Jersey I was an adult. All the legal privileges of being an adult were now mine. I could vote, drink and marry all without the consent of any other person. Of those three things drinking was the only on my list for the day.
In 1956, I was born. I turned 18 in 1974. For the 18 years I grew up among the asparagus, pepper and tomato fields.
Being an adult had not removed the burdens of youth from me. As a result I was going to get up and go to school. It was only 1 month and 3 weeks before my high school graduation and I had to stay out of trouble, I had already been expelled from high school once (and then reinstated). My mantra was to keep my head down and tone back my wise ass mouth. Be part of the crowd, just be cool. At the end of the day I was going to hit on my girlfriend, but not sleep with her. Hell no, I wasn’t going to let some accidental pregnancy keep me in this one horse town. Finally, I was going to find a bar where I could have a legal beer.
Before anything else I had to shower, eat some food and get to school. After a quick jump into the shower and then throwing on jeans and a t-shirt, I headed downstairs. My longish hair would dry on its own. Man I didn’t realize it but I was scrawny. 32 inches of waist and I was six foot tall. In total I was carrying 140 pounds soaking wet; what you saw back then was tan skin on a broad shouldered boney frame wearing a t-shirt that had a lightning bolt and the world ZAP emblazoned on it. One of my college girlfriends once told me that I looked like a cross between Donald Sutherland and a moose. I took it as a compliment.
Mom was already out the door on her way to work. She had left me greasy scrambled eggs. Down they went forced into my gullet with a glass of whole milk. My plan was to bolt for the bus at the last minute. If I got there to early Fast Eddie would want to blow a joint and who was I to say no. If I got there toolate I would have to catch a ride from Jimmy who would want to blow a joint on the ride and who was I to say no?
I hit my perfect time window neither too early nor too late and made it to school sober that day. Really was good that I wasn’t high. As soon as I walked in the head guidance counsellor Mr. Robinson grabbed me by my arm and marched me into his office. Mr. Robinson was a World War II vet. He believed in the military. On his desk Mr. Robinson had a Selective Service form filled out with my name and information waiting for me to sign. Nobody in the school was unaware of my opposition to the war, to the Nixon White House and to the status of things in generally. My mouth was nonstop. But I was an adult. I had to sign this form or become a criminal. Mr. Robinson sat me down and starred at me. I picked up the pen and made the first distasteful compromise of the many that would follow in adulthood. I signed a paper that committed me to a system I had absolutely no belief in.
In 1974 the war was gasping towards its conclusion. The troop drawdown was the death rattle of American imperial dominance. My signing that paper really meant nothing in my life except that I was compromising the beliefs of an 18-year-old idealist.
In 1974 America and Americans had lost trust in their government and had lost any faith that they could win a jungle war. Things were just a fucking mess.
Oh yeah in 1974 the word fuck was seriously offensive. Fuck was just the slightest micro-measurement away in potency from cunt and from the granddaddy of them all, cocksucker. Hey, only a decade earlier Lenny Bruce was going to jail for saying cocksucker. I used fuck instead of period in my spoken sentences as punctuation.
One of the odd things that happened because of the Vietnam war was that a movement arose to lower the legal drinking age, Old enough to die, old enough to drink. Despite 50,000 of our young men getting killed in a hellish swamp, suffrage did not imbue to then until the age of 21. However, God help you if you were caught with a six pack at age 18.
As such things were done back then the all-knowing scientists were called upon to answer the question, is lowering the drinking age okay? Well after donning their Ph.Ds. and congregating in front of computers into which they had loaded stacks and stacks of computer punch cards they came to the conclusion that there would be no change in the way life worked if 18 year olds could drink. Given the carnage on the road that followed it seems they must have misplaced a decimal point. The law lowering the drinking age came into effect a few months before I hit that magic th.
Trust me I was no novice to intoxicants. I started smoking pot when I was 12. Weed, cheap assed Mexican weed was my intoxicant of choice although I would drink beer here and there. Hell, I even drank beer with piss in it. Yeah, I was the local social outcast and the assholes I grew up with knew the alcohol would mask the taste of urine as they handed me an open beer. Trust me eventually I got used to drinking beer only from previously unopened pony bottles of Rolling Rock.
On the day I turned 18, I borrowed my father’s 1965 Mustang. Windows down and the AM radio blasting I drove over to my girlfriend’s house. She lived in the next town from me. Her Cape Cod house was right behind the high school I attended. As I remember it her parents weren’t home that night and so we messed around getting our hands sticky and smelly. She had soft hands and a solid grasp. After a bit of teen lust for some reason I got it into my head that I had to go to a bar, show my license and drink a beer.
One beer, I only wanted one beer. My plan was to go to a hole in the wall bar. God, if my old man heard I was drinking and driving his car I would never, and I mean never, drive the Mustang again. Joking with me the week before my brother in law had mentioned that the emptiest bar on a midweek night was one particular American Legion. As fate would have that American Legion bar was about a block from my girlfriend’s place. When we finished up with tactile danger and delight, yes lord I was thanking you for my fingers, I straightened up my clothing and drove the block to the bar. She was 17 and lived in the neighborhood so I went alone.
As I remember it this forty plus years since the place was an off-white cinderblock kind of construction. There was a flag out front and maybe a small cannon. Inside the place was as nondescript as it could be. Dingy walls were kind of yellow but I imagine they had started out white. There were some tables with metal ashtrays almost all empty. To the back of the room was a small bar. I walked up and took a seat at the bar. I pulled out my dollar bill and ordered a Schlitz. Didn’t even get carded.
The bartender pulled out a bottle popped the lid and handed me a short glass. He took my money and slid my change back to me. He didn’t engage me in conversation just turning around to wipe things down and to put glasses away. Maybe there were two other people in the place but they were watching something on the TV. Not only were they not talking to me but they were not talking to each other.
At most it took me 10 minutes to down that beer. The best thing I can say about that beer was it was cold. Schlitz tasted awful and the buzz was nowhere near as fun as pot. After I had downed that beer I felt full and wanted to belch. Somehow, I knew I shouldn’t in that place at that time. I collected up my change I turned and walked out. I didn’t know you were supposed to leave a tip for the bartender.
Worried that I had alcohol in my system I drove the back-road home at about 45 miles per hour. I threw a couple of sticks of Juicy Fruit into my mouth. The gum came only after I had smoked a couple of Marlboros. I figured better to get busted by the old man for tobacco that for beer. When I got home I parked the car walked around the dying downtown of my little town. God, I knew I was going to stick with pot for a long, long time. Beer sucked.
Having my first legal beer was about as empty a first experience as I have ever had. The beer tasted like shit, the buzz wasn’t fun and God the venue left just nothing to the imagination in the way of desperation décor. The whole experience was kind of like masturbating when you couldn’t conjure up a hot fantasy.
Years later I would realize that people drank in places like that so that they could get fucked up cheaply and discreetly. From that day on, while I have had a couple of favorite watering holes (most notably Gregory’s in Somers Point, NJ) I have never really been attracted to the bar life. This probably was to my betterment all and all.